Birdbrain

by Phoebe Reeves-Murray

“Hey Eggman!”

I was at my desk, encrypting a file from the eager eyes of my chief. A woman dropped dead that morning while taking a shower. Her son found her when he came home from school. He was a mess when I arrived. I was on duty so it fell to me to take the evidence photos of her dead body. I asked him if he wanted to be there while I did, explaining calmly and clearly that the coroner’s office required them. He was a high school kid, an only child as I surmised from the mantelpiece pictures and trophies. His dad had been at work, rushed home when the boy called him. They hugged each other sobbing, as they shook their heads on the offer to remain in the bathroom and left me to my job. People trust me ‘cause I’m a woman. Except when they don’t.

I unloaded the photos right after that call and had to head out on another call. Inside my chest Bird’s wings were flapping. As I took deep breaths, I realized actually that the fluttering has been more of a flapping for a while. I think it’s just that Bird’s been getting big. Growing like kids do. Really big from the painful banging of her wings against my ribs. I was so distracted that I killed a bird. A red-winged blackbird and his mate were chasing off a crow from their nest and flew right in front of my car. They flew so fast I thought they would all make it. The crow and the male red-winged did. The female red-winged, who is actually just brown, didn’t. I know ‘cause a tiny cloud of feathers swirled up in my rearview window. Another car was riding right up behind me so I couldn’t slow down. I wondered who was going to raise their eggs now. The male? Every other time creatures have made it across the road or I’ve slowed down in time. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what you do because there’s always this bigger-than-you picture. You’re just a teeny tiny part of it. Even “you” is a big picture of which “your sorrow” is just a fragment along with “your fear of getting hit by the car behind you,” your “just a moment too late foot on the brake” is another, and so on.

Seven years ago when my five-month-old daughter lay dying in her hospital bed, the doctors and nurses and the religious guy thought I turned away because I couldn’t take it anymore. But it wasn’t that. I was taking her with me and we were leaving the hospital. Bird and me, together forever. I had turned towards the door, brought my arm around, and swooped my fingers closed like I’d seen a magician do. As I did, Bird flew into my hand, her little being all wings fluttering. Her heartbeat slowed, stopped. I glanced down as my fingers closed around a handful of iridescent feathers, and remembered how I knew I was pregnant. It wasn’t morning sickness and vomiting like in the movies. No. A diner waitress poured me a ginger-ale, and I felt each bubble of fizz burst against my skin. A few moments or months after the ginger-ale, I watched Bird’s heartbeat flash like a firefly on our ultrasounds. We were one. Even after she was born.  Even though they said she was dying.  That couldn’t be. Because we were one.  So, with her tubes and hospital bed behind us, I held Bird in my hand, brought my carefully closed fist up to my heart and cracked it against my chest. Her heartbeat slammed back into beating, faster and faster as she flutter-flew, real feathers, real wings now safe back inside me, and we left the hospital together.

Now, when I reached my second call, I shot a quick glance at my front fender and saw a splash of blood and some feathers. I managed to quiet the painful flapping inside me and focused on the call. Wanda Duquette thought aliens were after her. She’d shoved her refrigerator out on her front lawn. At some point, she’d stripped, painted herself black, and started to get into the appliance, when she decided the aliens’d find her if she didn’t paint the fridge black, too. That’s when the neighbors called.

They all stood around, filming her breakdown with their dumbphones. Wanda’s sister-in-law was right out in front, leading the filming. Not one of them brought her a blanket. I thought about the chief as I got one of our standard greys out of the trunk and walked over to her, talking calmly. She flung it to the ground, shouting it was suffocating her with poison. Bird’s wings were whacking me something fierce, so I slapped some black paint on the blanket. Wanda happily got under it. I took her inside her house, found her medication, called her doctor, got her situated with a home care nurse. I don’t mind doing those calls—people need looking after.

By the time I returned to the station, my partner José had already told the Chief that a woman under 50 just died naked in her shower. The Chief, true to form, had already gone pawing into the photos. Is dying naked in the shower a crime? Is being crazy a crime? Is being a woman a crime? Or does it just happen?

It didn’t take much to lock the file; never does with someone who doesn’t even think to close his mouth to breathe. You’re thinking why don’t I just report him? And my response is to whom? To protect and serve means we’re all in this together. You don’t want to be caught needing backup and no one comes when you call. I need to save my energy to do right by the people that I can do something for. I got to work with these guys. I am fast, good with jiu jitsu and I made it through the academy. They can count on me to do reports right and I am the one that people in the community trust. I can de-escalate pretty well. I don’t get promoted, but that’s ok. I don’t need them expecting me to hang with them or go out to the Chief’s lake house. With these guys, you’ll never be side by side—only underneath them—and frankly I don’t want it missionary or doggie-style or anything else with any of them. I got my own problems, I don’t need theirs.

I grew up in a foster home and got pregnant when I was 15. Bird was more beautiful than the world to me and for five months we flew through the sky together. I saw everything in the world through her, the ocean, land, space. I figured she was tired so we landed in the ER for a quick trip (I didn’t have the healthcare plan I do now through the PD) after she went from babbling and smiling to frowning and winging and made a fist that she wouldn’t release. I couldn’t figure it out, couldn’t figure it out. She disappeared inside herself, like when a soap bubble spins incredible colors, then suddenly turns grey, then black, and you know it’s about to pop.

Bird had a stroke on one side of her brain. By the time I got someone to help me sort it out and get her help, she’d had another stroke on the other side. The hospital put her on life support and I’d lie down with her and watch her and sing to her and point to the sky which was just the shitty cracked white tiles in the ceiling, no blue sky and stars there. No more flying for us. She stayed in a medically induced coma, her eyes like slits. The machine breathed for her. About a month after her brain’d popped, the doctor told me that if she stayed in a coma, very soon she faced a fatal heart attack. I sat up, listening to him tell me this, not wanting to lose it, to be a problem teenager, not wanting to burn the hospital down. I had my arms around her, cradling her head. I could feel her fluttering, wanting to fly away from here. I could hear the doctor a long way away, but I told her Fly to me, fly to me and I’ll catch you and she did. She fluttered to me and they pulled me away. I trashed the hospital room, not because I was trying to be a problem teenager, but because I was trying not to crush Bird’s wings but take them to a safe place to fly. She fluttered inside me after they turned off the machine that breathed for her, but that was ok because I had her safe in me again. I had all these bloggers and journalists wanting interviews with me and clips showing better days and then her with all the tubes in and out of her, and then a funeral and so I left. I’m sure that people freaked that I was a shitty mother and typical teen, thinking only of myself. People get off on kid deaths; it really brings out their self-righteous hellfire.

When I got out of the group home, and looked for jobs, I could feel her fluttering. When I saw the advertisement for police officers, I applied feeling those wings waving in me and I knew it was the right decision. I was a homeless cop between the academy and my first few paychecks, but I didn’t care ‘cause she was safe inside me again.

When I had my job interview with the Chief and Sarg and a community representative (who was in fact Wanda’s sister-in-law), they asked me specific questions about giving tickets. The first scenario was speeding’s been a problem around the city limits, Sarg wants tickets written, my supervisor comes flying through on his off time. Do I give him a ticket? I said yes, of course, he issued the edict, I have to follow it and give him a ticket. Next question: my mom comes through going five miles over the speed limit. Do I give her a ticket? I said well, if she wasn’t already dead, I wouldn’t give her a ticket because that’s something you just don’t do to your mom. She’s got enough to be punished for without a ticket. They thought that was funny.

The Chief called me in personally when they hired me. “We need someone to take care of the community, and apply for grants,” he said.

I understood that I was a woman (read: didn’t have a penis), and so, excluded from what the male cops referred to as “the tripod club.” Still, they needed someone to do women’s work. Well, I was a woman and I was damned good at work. He knows I do fine with a weapon. But I won’t use dogs because I don’t want them getting injured by some fucked up human being. Also I knew how to write a sentence, what a paragraph was, how to spell and that means money.

Now, my fuckstick Chief’s screaming, “Eggman!  We gotta job for you that means money for the dept.” With the file locked so he could no longer get off on the dead mom’s body, I faced him and saluted. He hates shit like that. He glared at me, rolled his eyes at my partner José and tossed a printout onto my laptop. Due date was in one week. The RFP was for $100K which was huge for a popo like ours. I banged out the best draft I could and sent it off.

The grant money was for a natural surveillance control unit. Staffed by raptors. You heard me right. Birds. I could feel Bird reading that one with me as my eyes skimmed the page. What about your rule about animals? I could feel her thinking furiously at me.

“They’re just birds,” I said out loud, aware that the Chief had come into my office.

Bird missed my meaning and her wings jammed up into the back of my throat. I coughed.

“Now you’re getting to be one of us, Eggman. May have to find a new name for you,” he remarked and took the proposal.

The purpose of the grant was to incorporate a team of raptors into the PD who could take down the drones that everyone was buying to look at people and things that were just going to get them into trouble. Anyone can order a drone so everyone does. It’s a free world.

Anyways, the grant billed itself as a low-tech solution to a high-tech problem—only the solution wasn’t low tech. It was birds.

Phase one had been with trained natural eagles. Phase two was for a group of bioenhanced eagles-whose brains had been nanoed while they were embryos. Scientists took microscopic cameras which would grow in the raptor’s brain and injected them into the eagle egg. They used an ultrasound to guide the needle and put the micro-camera right into the bird embryo’s brain. The camera grew there without interfering with the bird’s eyesight. The camera was made of biomaterial, like part brain, part soul. They said it was like cams on drones.  The camera was an eye. An objective eye. It simply saw things, which was supposed to make it easy to separate response from action, from inaction. Easy for the bird? Or easy for the camera?

My Bird didn’t like me doing this at all. I didn’t either. But it was my job and if anyone could take care of the bioenhanced raptors, it was me. Bird doesn’t understand that you can’t change the world. The grant was to get a team of four bioenhanced eagles to stop the drone invasion in the local neighborhoods.

We got the grant. Provisional to an observation period by the bird techs to see if we would care properly for their investment. I was going to manage the birds. The Chief, José, and the others just sat around the Chief’s office, smoking cigars and talking about what to do with the money.

City Hall had described our community as buzzing with drones 24/7. The Chief believed the eagles could insinuate themselves into the community and not only take out drones, but keep an eye on the safety of the community’s most vulnerable members. The bird techs wanted to see our PD, specifically our drone problem in action so they came out on a call with us.

A drunk driver had crashed into the fire hydrant in front of the movie theatre. Water geysered into the air and fell like hail on the crushed car. A glow-in-the-dark beanie drone rushed me as I looked in the back seat (the bird techs tapped into my body cam from the safety of the patrol car as José called in the plate). I wacked away the drone as I saw a bottle, a stuffed zebra, and a sobbing toddler strapped in a car seat. Bird’s wings bashed around inside me and I rebuked her, sharply for interrupting my work. First time ever. The little boy’s eyes widened and he choked on a sob as he stared at me smacking myself. That reminded me the bird techs were watching. I pulled Bird and myself together, wondering how I could’ve gotten angry at her.

I smiled at the little boy, and he stared back, hiccupping, crying less frantically now. I unbuckled him, feeling carefully for any obvious physical trauma.  He laid his little head on my shoulder. I breathed in his sweet baby smell. Bird poked me sharp in my lungs. Don’t be jealous, Bird.  He’s not inside me where it’s safe like you are. I eased him out of the car as José came over with the address of the owner of the abandoned car. As soon as the baby saw José, he reached for him. José took him and his bottle and gave it to the boy who leaned on José’s shoulder. There was that damned beanie drone, recording the whole thing. I kept my cool because I had to track down the mother while José took the baby down to the station to wait for DHS. She’d been home nearly two hours, locked in her bedroom when I got there. Trash, liquor bottles, moldy food everywhere. Another drone was buzzing from window to window—this one shrieking obscenities at the woman who kept hurling things at it.

The bird techs said I was good with her, said I must be good with people. The funny thing is it’s not like I LOVE people. I don’t. But I know people need a lot. More than they will ever get in the one miserable lifetime they have no choice entering and no choice leaving.

We got four raptor chicks.

The bird techs wanted the chicks to know us intimately so that they would be dependable patrol and service creatures. They did the incubation and what José called “the Frankenstein’s lab magic” and gave us a brief training in how to raise them and then we were on our own, welcome to parenthood. None of the guys objected when I took the eaglets home. I made a nest for them. I felt the occasional flutter from Bird, but she was pretty quiet overall. I wanted her to get interested in the eaglets, too, so we listened to them peep, fed them, watered them, and together we watched livecams streaming raptor nests—we saw a cat collar with a gold bell in one nest!

I made a loft platform and moved my bed up onto it. In my bed, I made a nest and surrounded it with feathers—including some from Bird who sulkily gave them over. Two of the chicks died. The bird techs said that was about the expected rate of mortality. The two remaining chicks burrowed in my hair, climbed onto my chest. I made raptor noises and mouthed the eaglets, fed them chunks of raw meat from my mouth. If they were going to have to work for people their whole lives, they should have whatever I could offer in the way of their world.

They grew up fast. There’s a process called “manning” the bird. All eagles have a nictitating membrane, an extra eyelid for cleaning and protecting the eyes. Eagle parents often pull the membranes over their eyes when feeding their young to keep the eaglets from accidentally damaging the parents’ eyes as they lunge for food. My eyes got pretty fucked up at first. I also got a few chunks out of my chin. I watched the videos and moved like a raptor, croaking, squawking, shrieking at her. The Chief made cracks about how could a woman “man” a bird. Of course, he used the term “vag.” I had keep the birds up for 48 hours and adjust them to all kinds of human distraction and noise. I took them for long, high, far flying sessions since they need to fly, soar, dive—the last which they can do at 100 miles per hour! I was the only one on our squad to make it through the handlers’ class.

I loved it. But I was not certain the birds were a match for the carbon propellers of the more sophisticated drones they would inevitably end up encountering. When the Chief and Sarg caught me squawking back and forth with the female one morning, they gave her badge number 143. I knew it was another jab, but that was okay ‘cause Bird didn’t like me calling the female raptor Bird anyway. 143 was totally serious about the job, and I’m sure the pieces of meat and the numerous mice and rats I slipped in there didn’t hurt.

While outnumbered by the quantity of Amazon drones, we sure weren’t outnumbered in the IQ of the populace who were buying them. It was always the same story: “my shopping drone lost track of my address” (and ended up in my naked neighbor’s bedroom) or “I was just making sure my property was secure.” In the back of my mind, what the Chief had said in the proposal kept nagging me, especially the part about the police force using natural expertise, natural perfection in seeing everything before it happened.

People who dealt drugs and abused their families still wanted pets. So I had to make 143 and José’s male raptor whose name was 6 their pets by building a nest on a platform. 6 and 143 set up shop by nesting. Be their pets, I thought at them as I set up the streaming connection, remembering the little boy in the wrecked car, make everyone trust you.

The Chief came in as I was watching the bio-cam growing in real-time in 143’s brain.

“We got the drone thing down now,” he said.

“Yeah?”  I waited, my eyes on 143’s brain-cam.  Bird filled my whole chest, motionless.

“We watch them. While they watch the birds. Think of all the things we can find out. We might be able to stop things before they happen.”

I frowned. “Watch who?  And like what?” I had never let anyone see me out with 143 so they didn’t associate her with the PD. I was always invisible nearby though in case she needed me.

“Everyone we can and bad things of course! Those birds’re our eye in the sky. And eyes in the sky are better than eyes in your head!”

José came in with 6 at that moment, bringing him back to me to give the bird his raw meat lunch. 6 had decided he only liked to be fed by mouth and José couldn’t bring himself to touch the raw meat, let alone feed him mouth to mouth. 143 never had that problem; she was independent and yet, responded even as the thought crossed my mind to hers. I fed him while they watched silently.

Not long after, José, who was very public with 6 especially after the video of him and the little baby boy had gone viral, took him out for drone patrol dressed in an avian-tailored police coat. Some bastard sent an upscale drone after him specifically, and its carbon fiber blades tore through one of 6’s legs. José and the Chief got the bird techs to fix him, sent 6 back out, and his other leg got partially severed by another drone.

143 was a stealth drone hunter and deactivator though. She not only took drones down, she could go pick them apart and deactivate them. On our off days, I had her watch me tinker with hardware, but 143 took it to the next level and showed me what to look for, how the cameras worked.

Meanwhile, Bird’s wings were still. No fluttering, no beating against my lungs, my heart. It was great to be able to take full breaths for a change. I worried at first because usually we were in constant communication, but I was learning so much from 143 and since Bird was safe inside me and getting bigger all the time, I was sure she was learning even more than I was.

The perch was in a high open area near enough to see into a few of the local neighborhoods. I staged my own cams to stream them so I would know exactly what they were up to and get there quick to save them if they got in trouble. Once the nest was operational, 6 finally started hunting his own food. Unfortunately, one of his first kills was a little pitmix puppy that some son of a bitch had abandoned. Boy, did we get blasted for that one. No one had caught on about 143 being an officer and with 6 wounded, people loved the idea of a service raptor settling down with a “wild” eagle.

143 started flying over to a bungalow in the old beach area of the prescription drug district. The woman in the bungalow loved wildlife—AND media—as evidenced by her Facebook page and all her viral media. She had a little baby and dressed it in different outfits multiple times a day. That baby was always either made up like a Halloween decoration, or dressed up like some mini me political candidate. Her other obsession was posing with 143. Instagram had been replaced by NOW which offered photo after photo or all real time video, complete with changeable perspective, at whatever interval you set until you turned it off. 143 landed on her windowsill, had meals in her kitchen, became the subject of her photos, her “pet” just like I’d ordered.

I tried to get through to 143 about this hyper-focus distracting her from quantity and quota of surveillances she should be doing, but I got a lot of wing beating and shrieking in a tone that I hadn’t encountered from her before. At the same time, Bird was crashing around inside me and making a falling feeling against my guts. I was out from work ghastly sick a few days.

I had just pulled myself back together when I got a call from José giving me the heads-up that 143 had been found flapping all around in the baby’s crib. And the baby was dead. The Chief said, “Maybe the bitch had the Munchies’ Syndrome.” I didn’t correct him except to review the records that nothing was out of order or untoward in her doctors’ visits. There were no marks on the baby. Hysterical, the woman had called rescue. Hospital pronounced SIDS. The Chief ordered me to interview her, but she was too distraught to come in. Since she was an internet addict, I decided that I would interview her by video conference. After telling her that I would be recording information and how the Department would use screenshots, etc. we began.

“I know you didn’t mean for your baby to die, so why don’t you tell me what happened after you put him down for a nap.”

“I found that bird in my baby’s crib, tearing up all my baby’s toys so it could get to him and kill him and it did!”

One of my hands made a motion like the magician’s scoop, and Bird’s wings hit the bottom of my throat. I coughed and burped, unable to quiet the storm in me. Trying not to choke, I could see the mother staring at me. I opened my mouth to speak and Bird’s wings swept across the roof of my mouth. No, I can’t let you die!

On top of sharp focus and a central magnifier, eagles have superior color vision—an ability that evolved to help them detect the UV-reflecting urine trails of small prey. But we can’t know what these extra colors look like, because, compared to them, we’re blind. What could it mean to see all those colors we couldn’t see? It meant 143 could see that a baby was going to die.

I cut off the interview and rushed, still struggling to breathe, into the other room where the Chief and the bird techs had 143 pinned on the table. She was struggling, her gold eyes taking in all the colors we could see and all the colors we couldn’t see.  Her other eye, her brain camera, the eye that could separate action from inaction was being pulled out of her head by the bird techs with a needle and a remote. The Chief kept trying to grab the microscopic camera, yanking at the cords, pulling 143’s head inside out. I shouted that the Chief was breaking the camera, but he thought you could pull it out like a chip, like a flash drive, like a single piece.

Through the speed of the rushing wings, 143’s eye and the camera’s eye spun around and around like the reverse camera icon on a dumbphone. I saw talons hauling away stuffed animals and blankets—all the brilliant colors piled on top of the baby that made for a perfect picture. But 143 had seen the whole picture. She saw the baby was being smothered by too many hand-stitched blankets, too many windup toys, too many cameras, too many colors that we couldn’t see—like the colors of two strokes, of a heart attack, of a bubble about to burst—so she’d tried to save it.

I scooped 143 into my arms and tried to crush her into my chest where she would be safe from this unnatural life—where she and Bird could always live like the world was beautiful. But as I leaned into her dying face, my eyes wide open this time, two pairs of wings dove me down, down at 100 miles per hour to the floor. And I saw tiny fizz bubbles about to burst. As we hit, Bird and 143 exploded in a fireball of colors I never knew existed. I had to let go—I had to release them. I couldn’t save them from this savage world, but they had saved me. And when I let go, I soared up and away on their updraft before they disappeared like magic, like life, like death, into the ground.

hedgehog scene break

Phoebe Reeves-Murray has worked with children and teens for the last 30 years. She loves writing about the mysteries of the parent and child bond, fairy tales, Jungian archetypes, and strange events that take place in the space right next to our own lives. Her fiction has appeared in Quailbell, Rivet, Empty Oaks, The Literary Hatchet, and others. Her other publications include plays, textbooks, and technical manuals. Writing saves her life. You can reach her on Twitter @phoeberm.

“Birdbrain” (© Phoebe Reeves-Murray) was published in Issue 8 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.